A few years ago, my friend and I were jaunting around Taipei. We had just gotten on the subway and tried to find a seat and found a few empty ones. Excitedly we went to sit down only to realize that a man very near those seats was throwing up right next to us so my friend veered us away and we went somewhere else to stand.
Once safely away from the "splash zone" I paused to watch everyone around me on the train. Everyone was horrified by this man who was sick - many moved on to a different car. I wasn't sure what to do. Part of me really wanted to help this man out. But I worried about a number of things: not being able to understand his response if it was a specific sickness other than the flu or a cold, not knowing who to contact for help, not having a cell phone to be able to even call someone for help. I felt ashamed of my inability to act but I couldn't muster up the courage to do something. I looked around; everyone wanted someone to do something but none of us did anything. So, I sat and watched this man who sat doubled over, saliva and throw up dripping from his face, and prayed that someone would step up.
Someone did. It was a high school student, still in his school uniform, armed with a pack of tissues and a few friends he had convinced to go with him to help out. The friends hovered while he kindly went up to the man and, kneeling to be eye level, he asked in the gentlest voice if the man was feeling ok and if he could be of any help. He offered the man some tissues to let the man wipe his face and clean up a little bit. The man was emotional as he expressed to his gratitude for helping him but told them he was getting off soon. The boy turned to his friends and together they helped the man stand and get off the subway.
What did I think of that boy? If that boy had happened to notice me and proposed marriage, I would have said yes. How had this kid been able to see past the grossness of the situation to see a man, one who needed help and mostly, to be treated with respect?
Last summer, I was on the train, returning to Sendai after a trip to Tokyo. It was the slow train and the entire trip took seven hours. At some point, a high schooler got on the train, sat down about 10 feet away from me and promptly fell asleep. I didn't think much about it until the announcement overhead came that our next stop was Sendai and that everyone should disembark because it was the last stop. As everyone started gathering their things, I looked over at that boy and found him still fast asleep. He hadn't heard the announcement.
I watched the boy anxiously as the views outside the window became more and more familiar. I started praying that he would just wake up on his own or that someone would wake him up. I looked around at the other people with me in the car. We all just stared at each other, having these silent conversations that you have with people you don't know. "Why don't you go and wake him up?" "Me? Why me? Why don't you go?" It seemed we were all frozen.
We neared the station and everyone stood up, all eyes still focusing on that slumbering figure but no one moved towards him. Trembling, I walked over and touched him on the shoulder and tried to put just enough pressure to wake him up. The boy's head was nodding on his chest and he was drooling slightly. I opened my mouth and out tumbled some words, "Sumimasen. Sendai desu." "Excuse me. It's Sendai." I might have said something like, "Sendai ni imasu" which means "We're in Sendai." It wasn't brilliant - in fact, I'm sure anyone listening to me laughed at my horrible Japanese. However, this boy needed to wake up and the crowds of people waiting to get on the train for its return trip away from Sendai stood just outside the door. I said it quickly and then panicked and backed away and towards the door. It was enough. The boy was roused and groggily lifted his head and looked up to see the station of Sendai. I disappeared into the crowd.
However, the experience left me slightly frustrated. My experience in Japan had taught me that Japanese people look out for each other and yet, they had all left me to help. Me - the girl who didn't speak the language, the one who had wracked her brain to stumble through a short, vague phrase. Why?
Last night, I thought about that experience again. Why was I frustrated? I think it was because of my previous experience in Taiwan. I expected a young, fresh-faced boy to kindly emerge from the crowds and do something. However, sometimes, life doesn't always work like that.
Sometimes, it requires us to be the one who steps up. Whether it's a small pack of tissues that can't possibly clean up a huge mess or three words in Japanese that can't possibly explain the situation, it turns out the most important thing is to offer what you can and somehow, that will be enough.